This from Leigh, via email, overnight:
I was wondering if you had an article on the verbs trattare and trattarsi? I don’t know how and when to use them and the information on the net was not well explained. Your lessons are well written and easy to understand and then the follow up exercise cement the learning.
Look forward to 2020 with Onlineitalian!
Wow, that took me back (in my head, obviously) to sitting at a kitchen table in student digs in Birmingham, England in 1985 or 1986, sweating over a task which we had been assigned by a French teacher who knew it was pointless wasting time on non-linguist history students but was being paid to sit there anyway so thought she would set us a passage to translate from Voltaire’s Candide.
Think you have problems, Leigh? Back then there was no Internet at all, and though dictionaries were a thing, mine was a little bitty one which, even if it contained a handful of the many words I didn’t know in the text, had little of any use to say about what they were supposed to mean IN THE TEXT I WAS SWEATING OVER.
Pretty much, that was when I gave up studying foreign languages.
Sounds like you’re doing much better than I did!
Later, due to a white-collar employment crisis at the start of the ‘nineties, I became a language teacher, which was ironic because I had no interest in languages and, having hated school with a vengeance, had no desire whatsoever to teach.
But needs must.
Once I’d embarked on my new career, I quickly learnt to BEWARE of the “What does XXX mean, teacher?” question.
Take a simple example, off the top of my head (really): “What does ‘dumb’ mean, teacher?”
“Well, it’s like ‘stupid’, the opposite of ‘intelligent’, ‘not very bright’, see?”
I can see from the student’s face that she’s unconvinced by my answer and, being less dumb than me, she has another go, this time with more context:
“Here it says that he was so surprised he was ‘struck dumb’…”
You can imagine the rest of the conversion, I’m sure.
But Lesson No. 1: when answering students’ questions (if you really must), never assume you’ve understood what is actually being asked.
A simple tactic is to ask something like “Can you read me the sentence containing the word you don’t know?”, which saves a lot of stress.
Or “What do YOU think it means, in the context you’re looking at? I can tell you if I agree.”
Words can mean different things: another example off the top of my head, ‘bank’.
Well obviously, it’s a place where they store donor sperm.
And it’s the side of a river, and similarly, a sort of little island (maybe made of sand, as in Dogger Bank).
And, um… does that answer your question?
No? Well, perhaps you can read me the sentence you found ‘bank’ in?
Many years later, I learnt to teach students HOW to ask about the meaning of words they were unsure of: “Daniel, can you give me a sentence with the word ‘bank’ in it?”, “Can you think of any contexts in which the word ‘bank’ has a different meaning?”, “Would it be correct to say that online banks offer better value?”
And so on, but never “What does XXX mean?” To advanced students, like you guys, I explain that that’s truly a dumb question!
Ask without providing contextual information and you’re simply BEGGING a teacher or helpful native speaker to give you a misleading answer.
My explanations are probably wasted breath, though.
People seem reluctant to let go of the idea that words ‘mean’ something, rather than that they are used to mean certain things, and that the way they are used may differ according to the location and the user.
Witness ‘rubber’, which is used to mean ‘eraser’ in Britain but ‘condom’ in America. Or ‘bad’, which these days seems to mean ‘good’.
But to Leigh’s credit, she doesn’t actually ask the ‘WDIM?’ question. Instead, she writes “I don’t know how and when to use them”, which is much more intelligent, though does rather invite the reply, “Well why not go and find out?”
Another memory, this time from the end of the ‘nineties, when I had moved to Italy (for love, though not for love of Italy) and was supplementing my freelance English-teacher wages by translating.
From Italian to English, obviously, though I could barely understand the texts people gave me. It had soon became clear that people were usually only willing to actually pay for a translation if it was something that was too hard for their secretary/mother/teenage son to help them with. And so the texts we got to pore over were the tricky ones, legal documents, mechanical manuals and so on.
OK, so by this point the Internet had been invented, but it still wasn’t much use. In the end, I went to Bologna’s most important bookstore and bought the heaviest set of Italian/English, English/Italian dictionaries that they stocked. The two volumes cost together cost me around $400, which I justified by gifting them to my wife for Christmas…
But it was money well spent! Finally, and unlike with Candide ten years earlier, I had the tool I needed to do the job. Jubilation!
There was just one problem – the whole process of looking stuff up was very time-consuming and laborious. It took me forever to translate a single page and my heart would sink whenever anyone asked me to work on anything that was longer than a short business letter.
But anyway, one of the things I learnt with my wife’s whopping new dictionary was that, when looking up the ‘meaning’ of a verb, I had to be careful I was looking at the right version: the ‘normal’ verb ‘fermare’, for example, or the reflexive version, ‘fermarsi’.
Wordreference.com deals with both on the same page, and if you look carefully at the examples and English translations, you’ll see that they’re not dissimilar.
‘Trattare’ and ‘trattarsi’ (the reflexive version has the si suffix in the infinitive form), which Leigh is asking about, are, however, quite different.
Though if you work down the page at Wordreference.com you’ll see that it’s the ‘normal’ verb that causes the problems, having several different meanings (to negotiate, to treat, to treat with, to be treated with, etc.) whereas the reflexive form has basically just the one, as in the example on the page linked to above:
Si tratta di una questione delicata.
I’d translate that, as do Wordreference.com, as something like ‘It’s a delicate matter’, using the verb ‘to be’.
BUT I certainly wouldn’t teach it that way: ‘trattarsi’ = ‘be’, ‘concern’, ‘regard’ ??
Personally I don’t find that helpful.
People use ‘si tratta di‘ to mean ‘It is‘ when they mean ‘We’re talking about…‘
So ‘Si tratta di soldi‘, would mean ‘It’s a question of money‘. You get the idea.
How can you know this, assuming you don’t have a twenty-kilo dictionary or a self-aware native speaker to hand?
Start with the example from Wordreference.com, or whichever dictionary site you prefer, or most obviously, from the text that is puzzling you.
Strip it down, so you just have the relevant part, like this:
Si tratta di
Then Google it.
IGNORE Google’s own translation.
Sometimes these can be helpful, and save a lot of time, but ‘advanced’ students like you and I won’t learn much from them, and can easily be mislead.
ALSO IGNORE the various dictionary results, and results from the discussion forums in which frustrated translators beg for help and receive very picky and sometimes inaccurate replies.
Look for ‘real’ results written by professional writers, news articles for example, such as the one in which Lady Gaga tells us:
”Lottate per i vostri sogni. Non si tratta di vincere, ma di non arrendersi.”
(“Fight/Struggle for your dreams. It’s not about winning, but about not giving up.”)
“Il troppo fa sempre male, anche se si tratta di cibi sani”
(“Too much is always bad, even if it’s a health food”)
That’s two lovely examples just from the first page of Google’s results. Truly we are living in the best of times, as Candide would have put it.
But remember, the trick is to strip your sentence down to the essential part, Google that, then ignore the dictionaries and stuff while searching out examples of how the language is actually used.
Definitions are a bore. Examples are the thing.
Then, when you have some really cool, memorable examples, don’t waste them by writing down ‘trattarsi = to be, it’s a question of‘ in your notebook.
Instead, write down, or better still learn by heart, the WHOLE SENTENCE:
”Lottate per i vostri sogni. Non si tratta di vincere, ma di non arrendersi.”
Who knew Lady Gaga could be so inspiring? I wonder if she was talking about learning Italian?
Hope that helps, Leigh.
A venerdì, allora.
Don’t forget to listen to Tuesday’s bulletin of easy Italian news.
And ditto with our Italian school in Bologna’s -20% promotion on courses in 2020.
Non si tratta della scuola più grande d’Italia, ma…